Kevin Rudd on the Decade of Living Dangerously
The Wire China
The March 2022 publication of Asia Society President and CEO Kevin Rudd's new book The Avoidable War, which examines the treacherous state of U.S.-China relations, could hardly have occurred at a more pertinent time. The month before, China and Russia announced that their partnership had "no limits" just as Moscow's full-scale invasion of Ukraine was in its final planning stages. The war in Ukraine has led international observers to wonder whether Beijing would engage in similar action in Taiwan — and, if so, how the United States would respond.
Your book, The Avoidable War, comes out at a time of not just the outbreak of war between Russia and Ukraine but the hints or suggestions that war could be brewing between China and Taiwan. In a readout from a meeting between [Joe] Biden and Xi Jinping just over a month ago, there was mention of Taiwan. As we know, there has long been the hint that Beijing could move on Taiwan and reclaim what it sees as its territory. How do you assess this situation?
My hope is that the Chinese choose to differentiate between Ukraine and Taiwan theologically. And the practical world effect is on two or three levels. One, I don't believe Ukraine has altered Xi Jinping’s personal timetable [on Taiwan] one bit. That's driven by two factors alone. One, the balance of military forces in the Taiwan Straits between China on the one hand, and a combination of the United States, Taiwan, and Japan on the other. And [Xi wants] China to be in a position where it is largely insulated from financial and economic damage from the inevitable sanctions regime which would flow. The problem is right now, from Beijing's point of view, neither of those conditions are yet met. They don't have a sufficient preponderance of forces in the Taiwan Straits, even though they win most of the desktop exercises on Taiwan; and they're certainly still hostage to the dollar-denominated international financial system. That's why I refuse to buy the argument that there is any sense of imminence about a military action against Taiwan, even if some armchair analysts conclude that somehow the United States is now tied down. It's not. There is no active deployment of American military forces. They're all still on station in the Indo-Pacific theater. The Indo-Pacific Command operates on a daily basis.
The second factor is longer term. On the question of precise timing, the degree of Western solidarity and international solidarity around Taiwan, which you pointed to, does upset the narrative of Xi and the rise of the East is just inevitable and the decline of the West is inevitable. And because they're a bunch of “cheese eating surrender monkeys,” to paraphrase George W. Bush talking about the French from an earlier period, and they were incapable of rallying around any hard cause at all, because they've all gone soft. They're too dependent on the Chinese economy and too fearful of the Russian military. This will lead to some theoretical reappraisal as to the odds they're up against.
But here's the final point. If you look at the Chinese propaganda message in Asia, and most particularly within China itself, what's the message that’s been given to the Chinese speaking world? It's been, “Well, look at Ukraine. The United States was not militarily prepared to stand by Ukraine in the field, because it was up against an established nuclear power, namely the Russian Federation. So where's that leave you guys in Taiwan? That actually has been the propaganda message, which not many people in the West have focused on. So before we draw any hard and fast conclusions about what Ukraine means for Xi Jinping, we should understand that it's a complex mix. But given how the Chinese decision making processes work, I don’t believe this undermines the ultimate Xi Jinping timetable, which I see is much more likely to be late ‘20s, early ‘30s [of this century]. And while Xi Jinping is still in the harness politically, he gets to do what Mao [Zedong] failed to do, which is to unite the country, by 2049.
The Biden administration has suggested that China too could come under economic sanctions if it moved to favor Russia. But many analysts say it would be far more difficult to unleash economic sanctions on China, since it is more deeply entwined with the U.S. economy and the global economy. Is there any chance the U.S. would really sanction China?
Within the [Biden] administration in Washington, all these questions are under active consideration, with the spectrum being from mini-sanctions to maxi-sanctions, depending on the offense committed by the Chinese in violation of sanctions against Russia. If you went the full sanctions route, which was China is punished using the same mechanisms deployed against Russia, that does equal global financial and economic Armageddon. And the thing about Armageddon is that it's pretty non-discriminating in terms of national boundaries. And secondly, given the degree of mutual financial dependency, there is a degree of mutually assured destruction about that level. Would the Chinese risk it and call America's bluff, knowing that an American action would damage American interests as well? This will be one factor and the Chinese leadership's ultimate calculus.
I think it will depend entirely on the sub measures that the Americans come up with. And there, if you look at the different categories of financial economic engagement, across the trade spectrum, and the financial markets and technology spectrum, it may be that you could reach for something which was unanticipated. Again, I have nothing to base this on, but you could close the remaining loop on the provision of semiconductors to China all together and send a message to the Chinese system that way. I do not know.
All I do know, and I suspect is the case, is that this work didn't begin yesterday in Washington. They are likely looking not just at sanctions against Russia, but parallel work, I imagine, has been underway for a long time now on a potential sanctions regime against China, if China was to form a strategic partnership with Russia on a continuing basis over Ukraine.